Eating for Peak Mental Health ~ Kallie Kitas gives us the 101 on Nutrition for Optimal Brain Health

Kallie Kitas is a Nutritionist and Naturopath on a mission to revolutionise the health and nutrition industry in an empowering, sustainable and practical way.

With a in Health Science and a wealth of personal and professional experience I am excited to share with you her exquisite knowledge around nutrition and mental health.

What Inspired you to become a nutritionist?

Kallie Kitas of KKN Nutrition smiling for headshot

I was inspired to become a Nutritionist and Natropath through my own health journey.

When I was 15 years old I was in and out of hospital with various health issues – a stomach ulcer, appendicitis and an auto-immune condition. I felt incredibly unwell during this time. One of my cousins is a naturopath, she helped me to feel better and it took a year for me to recover.

I was invited by my cousin to go to her workshops and learn about nutrition and health. I was 16 years old at the time. I really enjoyed the process of what and how she was teaching her knowledge to the community. The knowledge of nutrition and health that I gained from those workshops, combined with my own health experiences lead me to my decision to study science so that I could help others too.

My empathy for people struggling with their own health challenges stems not only from my own experience with health challenges but because prior to learning about nutrition I’d had a really poor relationship with food.

How important is nutrition in aiding peak mental health?

Nutrition is such an important component in aiding peak metal health. Nutrition supports neurotransmitters which then support our nervous system to be able to function. If you eat junk food all day long how do you feel? Likely pretty awful! When we eat nourishing foods that support our body and mind we feel focused, energised and more switched on.

Your brain is always working. It looks after a lot of your thoughts, movements, breathing, senses and heartbeat. It’s important to supply your brain incredible fuel to allow it to function at its optimal level. What you put into your body will affect how you think and feel.

What role do electrolytes and sodium play in the brain and how do we know when we need to increase our intake?

Electrolytes play a huge role in the brain! The majority of our body weight is made up of water and we have 3 compartments – fluid within cells, fluid around cells and blood. In order for humans to function optimally, the body must keep fluids within all of these areas. When you are deficient in electrolytes it can affect your brain as a healthy diet is a key factor in its ability to function.

Electrolytes (sodium, potassium and magnesium in particular) all help to generate electricity, contract muscles and move water fluids within the body so that we can do our daily activities. The concentration of these electrolytes is controlled by a variety of hormones from our kidneys and adrenal glands.

Sodium plays a significant role in your brain because your brain cells contain protein called ion pumps. This allows sodium to flow into and out of the cell which gives the inside of the nerve cell an electrical charge, setting off an electrochemical nerve impulse. If you don’t have enough sodium your brain won’t be able to initiate the electrical impulses that your nerve cells require for proper communication.

Potassium is the most prominent inside the cells and is paramount in generating electrical impulses in the body that allow muscles and the brain to function properly.

Lots of people are deficient in magnesium. Our nervous system structure is made up of magnesium B-vitamins. Stress and anxiety deplete magnesium. It plays an important role to activate enzymes within our brain which helps to control the flow of sodium and potassium into and out of our nerve cells. It also helps to sooth and relax our muscles as well as the excitement of neutrons in the brain.

An indicator of needing to increase your intake of magnesium is persistently sore muscles, dehydration, excessive sweating, fever and abnormal heart rhythm.

A natural tip:

Drink 0.33 x your body weight in kg of water and add a pinch of salt to your water for natural electrolytes.

How do a lack of essential minerals and nutrients like low iron or low sugars affect our brain?

A lack of minerals and nutrients (especially iron) can have a big effect on our brain. Some common warning signs of being low in iron can be; restless, hair loss, twitches, pale skin, fatigue, poor concentration and irritability. It can also create mood imbalances and make it super hard to focus. You may even find that your anxiety levels will feel worse when you are lacking in iron and other minerals and vitamins.

There are links between cognitive function and iron deficiency. For example, if you are iron deficient early in life there is a risk to developing brain structures, neurotransmitter systems and myelination that results in acute brain dysfunction. If you have low serum ferritin levels it has been correlated with depressive symptoms.

The first response when someone is low in iron is that it shuts down the energy of the cell which takes glucose and turns it into energy fuels. The energy of the cell depends greatly on sufficient iron levels. When there are minimal iron levels it shuts down the iron storage pathways and other chemical reactions that rely on iron. Finally, it will increase glucose pathways outside of mitochondria which is a less efficient way to produce energy.

If we run out of energy that is when we start to feel fatigue, mood imbalance, lack of focus and poor concentration. Iron metabolism and the integrity of the myelin play an important contribution. Myelin contains high amounts of iron so if your absorption of iron is poor it affects the integrity of Myelin sheaths (insulates neutrons so they can send electric signals faster and more efficiently).

It’s important not only to consume foods that are high in iron but also to have an efficient digestive system that is able to digest, absorb and break down food properly. Examples of foods high in iron are leafy greens, beetroot, lentils, chickpeas, red meat and green beans.

Are there any other essential minerals and nutrients that you feel are essential to brain health?

Yes! There are certainly other essential minerals and vitamins that are paramount to brain health. First and foremost your B-vitamins – particularly vitamins B12. B6, B3 and B9. Their main function in your brain is to facilitate the action of neurotransmitters. All of your movements, thoughts and feelings are a result of neutrons talking with one another. Any imbalances may lead to fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety and hormonal imbalances.

Omega 3 fatty acids are another vital nutrient that play a role in brain health. They maintain proper neuronal structure and function and modulate critical aspects of the inflammatory pathway in the body. Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in foods like flaxseeds, cod liver oil, sardines, chia seeds, walnuts, salmon and eggs.

Amino acids are super under-rated in my opinion, collagen and red meat are a great source of this – I’m unsure why their role in brain health isn’t spoken about more. They’re the building blocks for creating proteins. Some amino acids are precursors of mood-modulating chemicals like tryptophan for example, which covers into glutathione – the bodies most powerful anti-oxidant. Amino acids like taurine and tyrosine help with anxiety, depression, stress and cognitive function so that you can feel focused.

Minerals such as zinc also play a crucial role. It’s a race element that is involved in many brain chemistry reactions and supports your immune system. When you are low in zinc you may start to have depressive symptoms and mood imbalances.

Vitamin D is another of those that many people are low in. It’s a fat-solvable vitamin that’s important for brain and bone development. Low vitamin D can result in depression and auto-immune conditions.

Is what way does gut health affect our mental health?

Bacteria in our gut can affect cognitive function and mental health. The gut brain axis is a 2-way signalling that occurs between the brain and the digestive system. An imbalance of microbiome (microbes) may bring upon symptoms of anxiety, depression, mood imbalances and feelings of fogginess. These microbiomes can influence the production of neurotransmitters (serotonin for example) or by the end products the microbes produce from digestion of food (butyrate).

Our gut is responsible for making 90% of our serotonin! (the happy chemical) so a lack of it can cause anxiety and depression. It’s amazing to know that some microbes in our gut can actually produce more happy chemicals! It’s very important to nurture that and keep our gut microbiome nice and healthy.

How would you describe a balanced diet?

A balanced diet in my opinion is one that is not restrictive and has variety in which a person doesn’t feel deprived or depleted. There is so much confusion around nutrition, one minute you hear something is ‘bad’, the next minute you hear that it’s ‘good’. I believe all 3 macronutrient groups (carbs, fats, proteins) have been demonised and it leaves people thinking “well what on earth do I eat!?” I believe it’s important to have variety and to avoid labelling food ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The only time to avoid certain foods is if you have an intolerance to it, are allergic to it or have an underlying health condition that requires you to avoid something.

Are there ever moments that you find it challenging to stay on track with eating a balanced diet and how do you overcome that challenge?

There are times when it’s challenging, but coming from a competitive track and field background gave me the opportunity to form a strong mindset and never give up when things get tough.

In the past I had a poor relationship with food and I used to struggle with binge eating on junk food. I now know that it was because my body was so nutritionally deprived. I was so confused with all of the information out there and I felt powerless. I would yo-yo between restricting myself and binging. My education in nutrition changed everything.

I don’t label food ‘good’ or ‘bad’ I just view it as food and I know which ones will make me feel better. If I’m stressed or anxious I know it’s easy to reach for the comfort foods but I know it won’t make me feel better. If I’m going to eat fun foods that I enjoy I’d much rather eat them when I’m in a good emotional state.

When I’m stressed or anxious I ask myself these questions:

“Do I really want this?”

“How am I going to feel in one hours time?”

Those answers guide me in what I choose. If I eat more than I intended to I know that I have the next meal to look forward to make the appropriate decision as to what I put on my plate.

What would you say to someone who struggles to take positive and consistent action around balanced eating?

I would tell them to take the pressure off of themselves. Often people feel that they need to be perfect with nutrition.

Understand why you repeat the same habits over and over again. Is it due to your environment? Are there layers of emotion underneath the desire for the food? It’s important to address these so that you can move yourself closer to your goal. Once this is identified take small and consistent steps to make progress. Avoid restricting yourself and have a balanced approach to food.

Track what you are doing, what you are eating and how you feel before and afterwards so that you can gain insight into the patterns around your eating habits. You will be able to see what’s working and what isn’t.

Make a list of your favourite foods and work out how you can fit them into your everyday life. Remember, there’s no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food, it really comes down to your portions and ensuring you include all of your essential nutrients.

Kallie thank you so much for shedding so much insight on the link between nutrition and mental health. It’s amazing to know just how much impact food and supplements have on our body and the wonderful way in which all of our complex adaptive neural networks communicate to one another.

For anyone wanting to learn more about nutrition here is a link to Kallie’s website: KKN.

Emily-Rose Braithwaite ~ Life Coach

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